Does Diabetes Drug Metformin Have Antiaging Powers?

metformin antiaging

People who have type 2 diabetes are often prescribed the drug metformin to help with glucose control. However, this diabetes drug may have antiaging and life-lengthening powers as well.

If it seems surprising for an antidiabetes drug to have these abilities, then the way it achieves this feat may seem even more unusual. According to a team of Belgian researchers at KU Leuven, there is a toxic process behind metformin’s healing properties.

Briefly, here’s what happens. Your cells have power manufacturing organelles called mitochondria. During the production of energy, by products called highly reactive oxygen molecules are formed.
These molecules are a type of free radical and thus have destructive powers. In fact, the molecules are associated with damage to cells and their DNA, which is a step in the development of cancers.

However, in low amounts, these reactive oxygen molecules can be beneficial. According to one of the study’s authors, Wouter De Haes, the team found that metformin administered to cells caused an increase in the number of damaging oxygen molecules. At the same time, “We found that this makes cells stronger and extends their healthy lifespan.”

Here is another curious finding in the study. A wide variety of vitamins, minerals, and other substances have antioxidant powers. Antioxidants are recognized for their ability to fight damaging molecules that can contribute to cancer and aging.

The relationship between metformin and antioxidants is not so harmonious, however. As the researchers noted, antioxidants battle oxidants (i.e., reactive oxygen molecules) but they also negate the drug’s anti-aging actions because metformin needs the so-called “bad” molecules to work.

The research that led to this finding was conducted using roundworms, which typically live for only three weeks. In the study, worms given metformin aged slower and remained healthier longer than did worms not given the drug.

Yes, it is a long road from worms to humans, and De Haes pointed out that one should be cautious about over-extrapolating the new findings to people. However, he also explained that “the study is promising as a foundation for future research.” It will be interesting to see how the antioxidant battle is resolved.


More benefits of metformin
Previous studies have suggested metformin may offer benefits beyond its ability to help in the management of glucose in type 2 diabetes. One of those areas is weight loss, which goes hand-in-hand with diabetes.

Since metformin has been shown to be somewhat effective in reducing body mass index (BMI) in obese adolescents with excessively high insulin levels, researchers have decided to investigate this further. Therefore, a new study is currently underway to determine the effect of adding metformin to lifestyle changes in obese adolescents with insulin resistance.

Metformin also has demonstrated some cancer-fighting properties, although a new study suggests it does not. In the latter case, the international team of experts noted that while “meta-analyses of epidemiologic studies have suggested that metformin may reduce cancer incidence,” this hypothesis is not supported by randomized controlled trials.

To further their point, the team evaluated data from 95,820 individuals with type 2 diabetes who had started taking metformin (51,484) and other oral antidiabetes drugs (18,264 on sulfonylurea) within one year of their diagnosis. After a 5.1-year follow-up period, the authors found the risk of developing cancer was similar between those who took metformin and those who took sulfonylureas.

Another recent study of metformin use and cancer found something different. The authors gathered data from the Danish Cancer Registry and the Aarhus University Prescription Database to conduct a nested case-control study covering the years 1989 to 2011. More than 12,000 cases of prostate cancer were identified.

The reviewers found the following:

  • Metformin users had a decreased risk of being diagnosed with prostate cancer than did men who never used the drug
  • Diabetics who were not using any antidiabetes medications or who were taking other oral hypoglycemic drugs did not have a lower risk of prostate cancer
  • Among men who had their prostate specific antigen (PSA) levels checked, use of metformin was associated with a lower risk of prostate cancer when compared with men who did not use the drug
  • Among PSA-tested men, those with diabetes who did not take any medications or who took other oral hypoglycemic drugs or insulin did not have a significantly reduced risk of cancer

Bottom line
Metformin is a popular, commonly prescribed drug that may offer more than antidiabetes advantages. Whether metformin has antiaging powers or cancer fighting abilities remains uncertain until further research is done.

De Haes W et al. Metformin promotes lifespan through mitohormesis via the peroxiredoxin PRDX-2. PNAS 2014. DOI:10.1073/pnas.1321776111
Preston MA et al. Metformin use and prostate cancer risk. European Urology 2014 May 21
Tsilidis KK et al. Metformin does not affect cancer risk: a cohort study in the UK clinical practice research datalink analyzed like an intention-to-treat trial. Diabetes Care 2014 Jun 4
Van der Aa MP. Metformin: an efficacy, safety and pharmacokinetic study on the short-term and long-term use in obese children and adolescents: study protocol of a randomized controlled study. Trials 2014 Jun 5; 15(1): 207

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